PD Info Public Domain Information Project

Copyright Law

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Copyright and the Public Domain

Authors own the exclusive rights to their compositions.   This is called a copyright and the composition is protected for many years--even if the copyright is never registered with the copyright office.  A composition is considered to be "intellectual property"  The copyright may be sold, transferred, or inherited--but the copyright still endures.

If music or lyrics are under copyright protection:

  • you CANNOT reproduce the music or lyrics
  • you CANNOT distribute the music or lyrics either for free, for no profit, or for profit
  • you CANNOT perform the music or lyrics in public
  • you CANNOT play a recording of the music or lyrics in public--even if you own the CD
  • you CANNOT make a derivative work or arrangement for public use in any form

Public Domain

Fortunately, copyrights eventually expire and the owner no longer has exclusive rights.  All compositions not protected under copyright law are said to be in the public domain.  A work is in the public domain when no one on this entire planet can find any law which gives them legal claim to that property. Public domain is the complete absence of any law allowing ownership of a property. If you can prove that a composition is in the public domain, you can use the work any way you can imagine. You can arrange, reproduce, perform, record, publish it, and use or sell it commercially any way you like.

Musical Works and Sound Recordings

A Musical Work and a Sound Recording of a Musical Work have separate and extremely different copyright protection.

Musical Work, Song, Composition Lyrics, Melody, and Musical Arrangement of Notes that Define a Song or Musical Composition Sheet Music
Sound Recording The Process of Fixing Music that can Play Back the Music upon Demand. Your Ears Hear Recordings. CD, Record, MP3, WAV

For example, The children's song, "Mary Had A Little Lamb" is absolutely in the public domain worldwide, and it can be freely used by anyone. However, in the USA, no sound recordings of "Mary Had A Little Lamb" are in the public domain. It is imperative that you understand the difference between a musical work and a sound recording when using public domain music.

Rule of Thumb for Public Domain Music and Sound Recordings

  • Musical Works published with a valid Copyright Notice of 1928 or Earlier are in the public domain in the United States.
  • Essentially ALL Sound Recordings released in 1923 or later are under copyright protection in the United States. Sound recordings released in 1922 or earlier enter the public domain on January 1, 2022.
  • Copyright protection outside the USA is determined by the laws of the country where you wish to use a work.  Copyright protection may be 50 to 70 years after the death of the last surviving author, 95 years from publication date, or other copyright protection term.

Information about Musical Works and Songs are found in the blue Public Domain Music pages of this website. If you need a Sound Recording, go to the green Royalty Free Music pages.

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